California Farm Bureau’s Paul Wenger Addresses 96th Annual Meeting

California Farm Bureau President reflects on membership triumphs & challenges in 2014 and his hopes for 2015

By Kyle Buchoff, CalAgToday Reporter

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) welcomed attendees to the 96th Annual CFBF Meeting by introducing the conference’s theme, ‘California Agriculture Caught in the Crosshairs.’

“The only way to be a target is to be standing still. I can guarantee we are not going to stay standing still, but from time to time, I think we have stood still. It is interesting; people say this is provocative, but it is also spot-on, California agriculture has adapted and improved, and continued to adapt and improve, and continues to provide food and fiber. We have become a victim of our own success, and because many times we would just as soon as sit back and hope the world would pass us by while we do nothing short of miracles by producing more and more food and fiber with basically the same resources we have had for years, all of a sudden, we’ve become victims of our own success.”Farm Bureaus Meeting Theme

“After two wet years when our reservoirs were brimming to capacity, our farmgate value in 2011 rose to a record of $43.5 billion. Now that’s farmgate, and you will hear other states say how they have a $100 billion farm economy, but this is just the farmgate, and we are not even talking about what our multiplier effect is.”

Wenger explained that California agriculture slipped by $1 billion in 2012, and “we have yet to see what the final report for 2013 will be. But, if it is any indication by what we have been witnessing  through the county ag commissioners in their reports for food and fiber production, it will likely set a new level.”

“And ladies and gentlemen, as bad as 2014 was for water, the fact that we had 4, 5 or 6 hundred thousand acres out of production, the fact that we had 17,000 jobs lost, what the University of California said was a $2.2 billion dollar farmgate loss due to lost production; I would estimate (and we won’t know until 2015), that 2014 will probably set a record year for farmgate value and income.”

“And we will have our detractors and others who say, ‘what is wrong on the farm?’ Agriculture continues to increase and produce even though we have challenges. The underlying number 1 challenge of the statistical health of California agriculture is water. Today’s presentation though is going to be forward-looking.”

Wenger’s presentation included a “Working for You” document handed out to each member that detailed the organization’s policies, and the duties of its staff, officers, and board of directors. Wenger recognized the efforts of Rich Matteis, CFBF administrator and staff to prepare the document and solve issues for the California Ag industry. Wenger explained, given the challenges over the last few years, and especially with the Affordable Care Act, “Rich Matteis has been doing nothing short of miracles, orchestrating our staff to be able to do more with less.” Wenger urged Farm Bureau members to carefully review the document to understand how the organization is endeavoring to work on their behalf.

Though the document did not include contributions from the 53 county farm bureaus, Wenger recognized the farm commissioners and the work product from their bureaus, led by volunteer staff who have to transition around new leadership every few years. “They have to keep air in the tires, and the bearings greased so everything works in our county farm bureaus. As a grassroots organization, it’s those folks and the folks we have at CFBF and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) that really help those of us who are farmers and ranchers to accomplish what we do.”

Wenger considers 2014 a very interesting year and expects the same in 2015. “It’s all about water, folks. Think back not too long ago to August when we had all the mechanizations around the water bond: ‘is it going to be a $6.5 billion bond? Is it going to be $6 billion bond?” There were questions about water storage and how much funding would be allocated for water storage.

“We finally got it done with a near unanimous vote to get the water bond on the ballot for $7.5 billion with $2.7 billion continuously appropriated for water storage. We don’t know what will happen, but we are glad it got on the ballot.”

Continuing, Wenger said that shortly afterwards, all the attention turned to groundwater. “The two groundwater bills working their way through the legislature were signed by the governor in September.” Later, one of the authors, former Democratic California State Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, wrote, “The Governor signs historic groundwater legislation. California’s water future is secure.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Wenger, attributing Dickinson’s recent defeat at the polls to the funding and efforts of the California Farm Bureau Fund to Protect the Family Farm (FARM PAC).

“Let’s not lose focus on what happened in November. For the first time in four decades, the electorate decided to do something about our water infrastructure.” Their message to Sacramento, well beyond the water bond, was, “We need to do something about our water infrastructure, not only for our environment, not only for municipal and industrial, but most of all for agriculture because we are feeding the world.”

“And so what happened is nothing short of phenomenal,” he continued, congratulating the board for stepping up and spending the funds to be able to get over the threshold and have a win.”

Returning to the theme of the conference and its positive outlook in his closing, Wenger stated, “A lot of folks will say that ‘Caught in the Crosshairs’ is a picture of despair. I actually say, ‘no, it’s hope.’”

Wenger said there’s hope for what the industry can do if given a little bit of water. “Some folks will say that with the clouds, it is doom and gloom; but remember, we need to have rain clouds to have water in our reservoirs and streams. Really this is a picture of opportunity and of what can be and will be if we work together and really take an aim on advocacy.”

“As we take an aim at advocacy, everybody gives the example of a three-legged stool: one leg is not any good without the others. “That’s absolutely true; I couldn’t do what I do without Kenny Watkins (First Vice President) and Jamie Johansson (Second Vice President). As we look to the future, we have to educate; we have to engage; and, we have to be advocates.”

Voters to decide fate of water bond this November

Source: Kate Campbell; Ag Alert 

Finding agreement on the $7.5 billion water bond measure headed to the November ballot wasn’t easy—it involved years of hard work by many stakeholders, including the California Farm Bureau Federation—but participants in the discussion said it’s a key step in addressing the critical need to upgrade the state’s broken water system.

“The severe water shortages we’re currently experiencing result from 30 years of neglecting our water-storage system,” CFBF President Paul Wenger said. “That neglect is magnified by the drought, and it’s time to reverse that pattern of neglect. Placing this water bond on the November ballot gives Californians a chance to provide more water for our cities, for food production and for the environment.”

CFBF Administrator Rich Matteis said passage of the water bond bill last week marked the end of more than five years of sustained effort.

“Farm Bureau has been involved in this issue since the beginning, working for a bond that would maximize the investment in new water storage for California,” Matteis said. “But as much as the passage of the bond bill marked the end of that process, it also signaled the beginning of a campaign to show Californians the essential need to invest in our state’s water system.”

Matteis noted that the water bond will come before voters in less than 11 weeks, meaning that supporters of new water investment will need to move quickly to solidify support for the measure.

“Farm Bureau members are uniquely positioned to work at the grassroots level to educate and build public awareness for much-needed water improvements,” Matteis said. “Every Californian has a stake in the voter outcome in November, but none more than farmers and ranchers who depend on adequate, reliable water supplies.”

The revised bond measure includes $2.7 billion for water storage projects and that money will be continuously appropriated, Matteis noted, meaning that future Legislatures will not be able to redirect it to other uses.

“This bond represents the state’s largest investment in water storage in more than 30 years,” Wenger said, “and it couldn’t come at a more critical time.”

The current drought has shown that California has lived too long with an outdated water-storage system, he said.

“We need to update that system to match changing weather patterns, in which more precipitation will fall as rain rather than as snow,” Wenger said. “Additional surface storage can capture those strong storm surges when they come, reduce flooding and bank that water for later dry times.”

In addition to new surface and groundwater storage projects, proceeds from the sale of bonds—if approved by voters—would be used for regional water reliability, sustainable groundwater management and cleanup, water recycling, water conservation, watershed protection and safe drinking water, particularly for disadvantaged communities.

Association of California Water Agencies Executive Director Tim Quinn called the revised water bond the “right size at the right time for California.”

Noting the bond includes $100 million that can be used by local agencies for groundwater plans and projects, the Kern County Water Agency commended those who negotiated the final version of the measure. The water bond also includes new funding for a variety of local water programs through integrated regional water management plans, or IRWMPs. Specifically, the bond measure would allocate $34 million to IRWMPs in the Tulare/Kern watershed.

The California Water Alliance, whose members include Central Valley farmers and agricultural businesses, applauded the bond’s placement on the November ballot.

“Most importantly, it recognizes that Californians statewide, from all walks of life, cannot afford to carry the burden of a dysfunctional water system that has been exacerbated by the worst drought in California history,” said Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the alliance.

The drought, she said, has resulted in dramatic levels of unemployment, higher food prices, increased utility costs, water rationing and severe losses for California farms, many of which have had to fallow thousands of acres.

“This bond provides the means to begin upgrading California’s water system for the 21st century, including new storage facilities and clean water projects for underprivileged communities,” Bettencourt said.